My Grandmother Wore Pants To Her Wedding

When I was seven, there were two things I wanted to be: a veterinarian, and a boy. I’m not sure if I thought the latter was a viable possibility, or if I did, when it became apparent to me that it wasn’t going to happen. Logistics aside, at least that dream was human. Before I just wanted to be a dog.

In preschool, there was a day that I came dressed in exactly the same Target shirt-shorts combo outfit that one of my male classmates was wearing. I was embarrassed all day, worried that someone would notice and tease me. I think they did. It wasn’t the worst. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I wore clothes that were distinctively for girls. All the pictures of me nonchalantly dressed in floral dresses are from when I was too young to be able to protest.

Kindergarten. My best friend/worst enemy at the time screamed when I cut my hair into a bowl that only the ‘90s could have begotten, ruining the cascade of tangles that was never allowed to freely swing behind my back anyway. My hair hasn’t even approached that length since.

My older sister brought in an old family photo for a class assignment in high school, the two of us. Her teacher told her she had a cute little brother. For all intents and purposes, it may have been true.

_____

When I get to this point in the story, acquaintances sometimes fumble for the appropriate phrasing one uses in a politically correct society to ask someone about their sexual orientation. But it wasn’t about that. It didn’t enter into the equation. I’ll never get married, I told my parents again and again, but mostly because I wanted to move to Alaska to live alone with my dog.

My mother told me she eventually outgrew her own tomboy stage. I thought I’d be different. Promised. My grandmother wore pants to her wedding.

I thought my dad had really wanted a boy, someone to ride dirt bikes and work in the garage with. I wanted to give him the next best thing. I never could bring myself to like dirt bikes.

When my sister got her ears pierced, I did too, because that way you’d still be able to tell I was a girl, right? It was too much work to have to correct people. I wasn’t trying to take a stand. I didn’t like having to correct substitute teachers and librarians, and the misrecognition caused me pangs of stress. It was a lie, and those get you into trouble. But sometimes it was like wearing a disguise.

I didn’t feel, really, like I was trapped in the wrong body. I guess I didn’t know what that meant. If someone had told me that people actually did become boys, I don’t know what I would have thought. I just knew that boys could pee standing up, and that just seemed way better.

Does that count as cross-dressing? The line is somewhat blurry: if a little boy puts on a dress, it’s not really a question, is it? But all girls wear pants and shorts. I think I mostly wore girls’ pants. But not always.

_____

My mom told me years later that she drew the line at me wearing boys’ underwear but she didn’t know why. Because my grandma said she should, possibly. She laughed as she told me, just a random thought as we drove down the street. What would have been the harm?

Looking back, I blame the books. I read anything I could get my hands on, children’s novels full of adventure and swashbuckling and fantasy. If the heroine was smart and tough, she pretended to be a boy, because that’s how you get shit done. You put on britches and then you were allowed to leave the house and ride your horse. To be a woman was often portrayed as an impediment to an interesting life. In a fantasy series called Song of the Lioness, a girl named Alanna makes herself into an Alan so that she can become a knight, rather than getting stuck in a convent.  Most of the books I read seemed to fall along the same lines. The only female Disney character I could identify with was Mulan, who chopped off her hair to go to war for her family.

This trope, in which a female poses as a male to achieve some end, is called a Sweet Polly Oliver, from an English folk song about a girl who decides to cut her hair and join the army. Onstage, it’s sometimes called a “breeches role.”

I liked these characters because they didn’t just twirl around in their ball gowns looking for a husband – they fought battles. Perhaps it was because dressing as a boy allowed them to be exceptional. I wanted to be exceptional.

I still have trouble understanding girls whose favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is smart and independent, but she’s trapped.

The two most famous female pirates of the 18th century, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, supposedly hid their gender from their crewmates for years. This may not be true – history is sketchy on this point, and it’s also possible that everyone knew their secret. But what is definitive is that they were pregnant at the time of their trial, and it saved them from hanging with the rest of their shipmates. Would I be grateful for my uterus if it saved my life?

I can remember being fascinated by Joan of Arc, who wore men’s clothing and led armies. Would they have burned her if she had been a man?

The female body seemed like a burden to me. To “be a lady” seemed like a prison sentence. My friends who went to cotillion had to learn to wear gloves, eat cookies politely, wait for boys to ask them to dance.  The Girl Scouts seemed so much more boring than their counterpart. I found skirts oppressive. How could I climb trees and walls with all that fabric getting in my way? There was no tangible evidence in my life to lead me to believe being a girl held me back in any way, but the feeling persisted. The concept of a post-feminist world was lost on me.

I played Theseus in the sixth grade play, because all the girl characters were boring. I didn’t want to play anyone’s wife.

I still don’t, at least not as a defining role. I cringe every time I hear someone say that what they really want to be in life is a loving wife and mother. I might pretend I understand, or at least support the option, but secretly I scoff. Is it naïve to think that that is not enough?  I never want to look at my life and ask Betty Friedan’s silent question: Is this all?

_____

I can’t pinpoint the moment I stopped wanting to be a boy.

One evening at dinner, when my mother suggested I get a haircut, I tossed out the proposition that maybe I should grow out my hair. I said it was because I was tired of people telling me I was in the wrong bathroom. Which was true. I didn’t like talking to anyone, much less having to argue the finer points of my own anatomy with them. But I was also just ready to start being a girl for once in my life, or at least acknowledge that it was feasible for me to enjoy things that other girls liked. It took me a long time to say it, having spent the previous half of my life fighting against it, kicking and screaming myself into a corner. I tried to play it off as practical, rational, no big deal, and so I changed at an even slower speed than my hair, millimeter by millimeter. I would only watch romantic movies if my sister “made” me. I half-heartedly protested when my mother tried to buy me overtly feminine clothes. Every girly thing I did seemed like a stand, one that said, I am growing up now. I didn’t want anyone to notice.

Ninth grade. I bought my first makeup supplies: black eyeliner to go with my newly dyed black hair. My desire to look a little more punk was an outlet, a way of pretending I wasn’t just really curious about what I might look like with eye makeup. I knew I didn’t look as cool as I wanted to be, but it was close enough.

I was 15 and almost 6,000 miles away from my home on an exchange program in Eastern Europe when I finally bought my first skirt, one my mother didn’t have to force me to wear to holiday celebrations accessorized with a burdened grimace. Away from anyone that knew me before, it was easy. At home, I was embarrassed, though I think my mom only made a small comment about it when I returned. Sometimes I think it made her proud, like I was no longer her little boy but becoming a woman, sort of like when I got to middle school and learned about personal hygiene.

I never learned how to properly act like a girl, because I wanted the opposite. By the time I had to learn to think about how to sit properly in a skirt everyone else had been practicing for years. I’d never painted my nails before — didn’t until I was 17, clumsily. I painted half my finger then didn’t know how to fix it.

You can trace vestiges of my boy stage in the sometimes-swagger of my walk, maybe in the way I move my hands or the way I say dude. I still refuse to own anything pink, frilly or beribboned. When the city inspector came to my house, she was convinced my room belonged to a male. Fuck, man, I just like the color blue. I can’t pinpoint all the leftover tics, but I know they’re there, only now people just call it a “vibe” and it’s probably why I don’t get hit on by many men. Maybe if I could see them too, they wouldn’t be there. Or maybe I wouldn’t care enough to change.

But every time someone has to ask about my sexuality, I get a little angry. Not at them, but at the subconscious self that makes me function in this way, even when I’m not trying. I don’t want anyone to have to ask.  I thought I was past that. I thought I was normal.

How heteronormative of me, to think it isn’t.

_____

Now when I bring friends home I have to explain to them who the boy in the pictures on the wall is. Sometimes I forget. It seems so long ago, like another person. But I still own a pair of men’s sneakers, my favorite shoes. They just looked cooler. TC mark

image – meeshypants

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  • Guest

    you just described my childhood. I thought I was the only one! 

  • Maxine

    This was refreshing, and insightfully written.. yayayay!

  • http://iwanttheseshoes.blogspot.com Olivia Moore

    “I cringe every time I hear someone say that what they really want to be in life is a loving wife and mother.” 
    lol, yes. just…yes.

  • Madison

    though I’ve loved and laughed at many thought catalog articles, I’ve never read one that literally hit me in such a personal way. I can’t believe that someone could experience life so similarly. I’m glad I read this.

    • S&M

      Me too! Wow! I didn’t know there was another me in this world until I read this! This is exactly what I went through… although I’m pretty sure my mom was more disappointed than proud.

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

     I thought this was going to be an article on Grandma DeGeneres. 

  • Elena

    I really identify with this :) I have friends that joke about me being a lesbian because I’m still not all that girly.  It’s not that being lesbian is bad, it’s just I hate that that’s the assumption, and that girls somehow can’t be competitive and intellectual or aggressive without someone questioning it.  Thanks so much for the article!

  • Anonymous

    I wanted to be a boy because I just wanted to be exactly like my big brother.  I don’t know why, or when, I stopped feeling like that but in the back of my mind I still much prefer for people to think of me as masculine rather than feminine.  Thanks for writing such a great article, now I know I wasn’t a total freak :)

  • guest

    The line about girl scouts not being as cool as boy scouts sums up my childhood. I was so mad that my brother got to go camping and I had to stay inside and lean how to sew.

  • http://twitter.com/laurajaynemart laura jayne martin

    For me it was the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy.  The boys’ was always better.  This was a great read.

  • http://twitter.com/iamthe0nly Jordana Bevan

    the books, indeed. LOTR was my childhood… this is a really, really nice piece. i love that you’re just.. comfortable. i think if i had written this i would have been very accusatory about what/who started my dressing like a boy and definitely been dumb and blamed female culture for why i’m still mostly in that boy phase. it’s.. encouraging that you’re so comfortable. because so many ladies shame me/’tomboys’ (i think?) for not being feminine or ladylike and, personally, i almost feel too insecure now about my lack of femininity (yeah, yeah, “femininity,” i know) to actually try to be “a girl” (YES, SERIOUSLY, I KNOW)… so knowing that it’s even possible (which sounds dumb) to someday feel comfortable, like you do, and to finally strike a harmonious masculine/feminine balance. idk. thanks for writing this.

  • http://twitter.com/fayerfayter Fire

    I may not be female, but I do identify with a lot of what you said, at least in broad terms. Growing up I also felt the pressure from my family/surroundings/society to mold me into something they felt comfortable dealing with. I simply wanted distance, space to spread my thoughts and come up with my own opinions. I felt paralyzed by their gaze. If I were to change it would be perceived as something other than my own realization.

    In reality, I suppose I feared a change in their perspective. I was okay with who I was, okay with how others perceived me. It was familiar, sustainable. But we are all mercurial, and clinging to an old identity I should have shed long ago only stunted my growth. Eventually I came to understand this and allowed myself to change.

  • Bleachedpeace

    This could have been the exact story of me growing up.  I mean I was reading it and just thinking, did I write this in my sleep?  But for me the slow transition to “being more of a girl” didn’t happen until I was in my early to mid 20’s.
    I got mistaken for a man all the time.  I constantly got asked if I was gay.  I rarely got hit on.  But I didn’t care because non of that was a big deal for me.
    At some point I just started buying clothes that fit me a little better.  T-shirts and sweaters actually designed for women.  But there are still bits of that “male” me out there.  I have a certain walk and a way of talking and approaching things.  I went to a college that was almost 75% male and so I just continued those patterns.
    The fact is I am married now to a man who decorated our whole house and likes to color coordinate outfits and I fix things when they are broken and deal with all the electronics stuff.  We can both be comfortable with who we are and it’s okay if I’m a bit masculine and he is a bit feminine.  It works and it’s perfect.

  • Guestropod

    I relate.  

  • Anonymous

    Gender is performative y’all!

  • http://twitter.com/JonTargaryen Carly Fowler

    This is my life story, oh man.

  • Luisa

    This was so beautifully written, and I can relate ever so much.  While I frequently enjoy my feminine side, I’ve always been a fighter, and it makes me immensely sad that even my subconscious associates this with masculinity.  In almost every dream I’ve ever had, I fight to protect myself or others, and, in the vast majority of these dreams, I am a man.  Hopefully, all of the women who feel this way will eventually lead to a bit of a change in the way society sees women’s roles and, maybe, we will expose the next generation to more books and movies that feature women who aren’t vying for husbands.  

  • Keshara Bjorkman

    I loved this. It’s incredibly similar to my own past, as well as apparently many others, according to some comments. I sometimes forget that many people are so much the same without ever knowing or realizing. I really liked this. Great writing, great read.

  • olive

    Marry me

  • danielle bell

    Yeah this was really good. Great writing. For all the people saying “ZOMG this is me”, I think it’s more of a growing sign of the times than some sort of insane coincidence. Women want to stand out, be allowed to think differently, like blue more than pink, have shorter more manageable hair, etc. And I’ll be damned if men’s clothes don’t just look and fit more cleanly. Cheers to a new kind of femininity!

  • Tammi.J

    So… I was convinced I was going to be a cow, or a puppy when I grew up. My aunt told my mom I needed therapy. HA!

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  • guest

    Dripping with misogyny. Girly is bad? Pink is ugly? Pants are better than skirts? Motherhood/being a wife is cringe-worthy? How is being a good mother and a loving wife cringe-worthy? If you want to be mother/wife, be a mother/wife. If don’t want to, then don’t. Honestly, no one really cares that much.

    • Nanami

      You might want to brush up on your reading comprehension.  Or did you comment before you finished?

      • guest

         I finished the whole sorry article. To buy into the mind-set that a woman who rejects what the culture defines as traditionally feminine is somehow more enlightened, better than a woman who doesn’t is playing directly into the hands of that same culture who automatically values the traditionally masculine over the traditionally feminine. I hope that someday we all grow up and understand that motherhood vs. childless, long hair vs. short hair, pink vs. blue, dresses vs. pants are not value judgments–they are just choices that everyone should be able to make freely without garnering disdain from any segment of society.

      • Anonymous

        She never claimed to be more enlightened. She talked about her experience. You can’t invalidate other people’s lives because they don’t fit your definition of what “should” be written about. I am so tired of seeing this attitude on TC and it needs to stop.

      • Anonymous

        If anything is misogynist, it’s society. How about looking at this as her experiences in a soceity where the plays and books and people around her couldn’t understand how she performed gender? Instead of being so reactionary. That’s what’s really at play here.

  • Rebecca

    I loved the Song of the Lioness! (and still do when I need some comfort…)

  • Lmcardone5891

    For those that think this is a forum to discuss sexuality, gender, mysogyny or femminism, why can’t we just accept that  people change and grow over time and this is THIS individuals unique road/path to finding herself. 

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoyed this. I don’t think it’s “better” to learn sewing or camping or to want to be a mother or not be a mother, but it is unfair how gender lines decide what a child is “supposed” to do. Very interesting.

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